4 nonprofit organizations on the importance of accessible music education


Illustration: Franco Égalité

Access to music education has experienced a sharp decline across public schools over the last several decades.

From policy changes to a lack of resources in public schools, many factors have caused the arts to be the first subjects to get cut from school budgets and curriculums. This has led to many nonprofit organizations forming to provide programs that serve local communities, particularly those where kids may not otherwise have the opportunities to engage with music creation (or the arts in general). In this article, we spoke with a few of these organizations that are developing engaging pedagogies around music education, with a particular emphasis on production and beat making.

The organizations

Houston-based educator Rovion Reed started Kinetic Vibez as a way to blend yoga, beat making, and mindfulness into one program. He converted a six-week summer program into a full-year after-school program that operates in over 32 schools across the Houston area.

In San Francisco, Dr. Elliot Gann created a program (Today’s Future Sound) that teaches beat making using pedagogical and therapeutic aspects that are informed by his background in clinical psychology. He has expanded this program both nationally and internationally, with partners in multiple cities and countries.

Beat making program Upbeat Academy was founded by Matthew Zarba. This program has provided regular music production programming to the New Orleans area for the last eight years, and has fostered partnerships with multiple schools and community organizations.

Last but not least, what began as a pilot project to start a DJ school in Brazil transformed into Building Beats, an after-school program founded by Phi Pham that serves communities in New York City and Los Angeles.

Below, we explore how these educators work together to create brighter futures for the next generation of musicians.

Serving communities

How does your program typically operate (pre-pandemic), and what communities do you work with?

Rovion: Kinetic Vibez worked primarily as an after-school program. We would go into schools and community centers to facilitate our program during 4 – 16-week residencies. During the residencies, students would rotate between music production and yoga. Each class would lead to a final showcase where students would display the music they produced and give poster presentations and demonstrations on yoga.

90% of the schools we worked with were Title 1 schools with low socioeconomic standards. While schools were our primary focus, we also held our program in public places such as parks and festivals. In those situations, we focused more on activities that could be enjoyed by both youth and parents. When we facilitate Kinetic Vibez in the community, we have a wide range of families that find what we do to be creative and fun.

Phi: We work primarily with Title 1 schools and communities that serve low-income students. Our goal is to develop and provide accessible music education programs that allow any student to learn how to make beats and DJ. Before the pandemic hit, we were working with 35 different partners throughout NYC to serve about 400 students every week in our classes. We used cloud-based based tools and apps, all of which can be found on our toolbox.

Matthew: Our flagship classes would meet twice per week for three hours in a computer lab-type setting. We’ve been able to operate out of the Jazz & Heritage Center since 2018. Outside of that core group of students, we partner with a lot of great schools and organizations. We bring mobile workstations consisting of laptops, DAWs, interfaces, studio monitors, microphones, and MIDI controllers to daily, weekly, and bi-weekly classes at schools like the Living School New Orleans, Center for Resilience, McDonough 35, and both Travis Hill School locations, where we teach production and recording to incarcerated youth.

We also have a long-standing relationship working with the residents at the Covenant House, a shelter for homeless and runaway youth in New Orleans. The young people there are amazing and really have a lot to say. They usually come with verses and songs already completed, and we show them how to make recordings out of them so they can be something tangible that exists in the world.

Dr. Gann: We operate mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, but also do work in New York City (including in the South Bronx and Brooklyn) and across the globe, launching sister programs in El Salvador, South Africa, and Australia, training other organizations, schools, and juvenile hall programs with our model. We work mostly with underserved communities, K-12 schools, and community mental health and juvenile justice settings.

A holistic approach to music education

What is your educational philosophy regarding music education?

Rovion: At Kinetic Vibez, we believe that music is a tool to create and open up possibilities that go beyond our grasp. By giving kids the power to create with mindful intentions at the core of their inspiration, we provide them with the ability to discover who they are as individuals as well as citizens of the larger global community.

Dr. Gann: Our educational philosophy is grounded in hip hop culture and informed by teaching best practices and research in early childhood education. Using Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and connecting them to various elements of hip hop (emcee, DJ, beat making, breakdancing, graffiti, beatboxing, etc.), we attempt to find bridges to connect with students of all different learning types. A lot of our pedagogy is informed by both developmental psychology and the most recent neurobiological and psychological research in the field of trauma, with the understanding that being culturally responsive is key. Students learn by doing, experiential learning, and what is called “project-based learning,” but in an adaptable way that adjusts to students’ interests and tastes. We teach some traditional music theory, but also integrate hip hop techniques including sampling, crate digging, sound manipulation, and more.

Matthew: Our Upbeat Studios program tends to attract student artists who really want to make music a career or pursue it at the college level in some capacity. It has a more all-encompassing focus; we try to give them as much business and industry knowledge as possible, in addition to exploring how to record and create music.

At our core, we believe that all young people should be able to participate in high-quality music education that speaks to their interests and career goals. We provide hands-on access to industry-grade equipment and software, and foster a loose and creative environment that encourages self expression and instills confidence in our student artists. Using a technology-based curriculum rooted in hip hop, rap, R&B, and dance music, we connect with young people in a natural way and provide them with a tangible framework of modern-day skills including media literacy, collaboration, communication, and problem solving.

Phi: Creativity is and should be accessible to all. We are continuing to innovate our curriculum, content, and training to make music education free or affordable for all of our students, as well as students around the world who visit our website and engage with us online. We also believe that music can be integrated into many other broader lessons, so we integrate life, leadership, and entrepreneurial skills into our music education. This allows students to use music as a vehicle to learn skills that can translate to any career they want to embark on in their lives.

Making an impact

What type of impact has your organization had on your immediate community, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

Rovion: Kinetic Vibez has impacted hundreds of children by teaching them how to discover themselves through hip hop, mindfulness, and creativity. We have accomplished this by hosting classes in the community and providing easy access to online content for students during the pandemic. We offer programs such as beat making, digital animation, musical ensemble, multimedia art, and yoga. After launching our online youth mindfulness livestreams, I thought it would be good to push this concept further by creating web-based programming centered around hip hop culture, mindfulness, and creativity.

We are now in the process of making that content, with plans to launch in the early summer of 2021. With it, we plan on impacting more youth where they are. Increasing access to the resources that Kinetic Vibez offers is what we are focusing on for the future.

Matthew: The most rewarding thing about Upbeat Academy is seeing the community that our students and alumni have created within it. I compare my job as Upbeat Academy’s executive director to being a coach or a playground supervisor: I unlock the gym and put up the hoops; they put in the work. It’s become a team or a camp of sorts for our current students and alumni. They really push each other and support each other as artists and people; they realize that no one is going to put them on the map, so they put each other on the map and collaborate and join forces.

Upbeat as an organization has been trying to provide more knowledge and experiences around the business side of the industry, showing ways that this can lead to different career paths, or how they can pursue production and music business in a college setting instead of it just being a hobby. And if it is only an activity, that’s fine, but we owe it to them to prepare them and provide resources for whatever their larger goals and pursuits are.

Phi: We have been able to work with over 5,000 students in NYC over the past six years, and we continue to work with students throughout the city. This year, we launched a pilot partnership with over 20 schools in LA that has allowed us to continue building relationships with young people everywhere. We hope to create a space — real-life or online — where any student can learn how to make music.

Dr. Gann: At this point we have served over 100,000 youth across six continents, and have helped them learn beat making and discover their creativity and passion at a young age. When we see our students later in middle or high school, many still remember and take pride in the beat tapes and albums they made when they were younger (all of our long-term classes culminate in a beat tape / album posted on our SoundCloud and Bandcamp for free download – we’re at the point where we have nearly 5,000 beats on our Bandcamp).

We have also conducted research on the efficacy of our Therapeutic Beat Making (TBM) model on anxiety and depression. While we have data we are still further analyzing, it has shown an impact on the capacity for youth to cope with stress, and a change in the way that youth understand and listen to music after participating in our program – a change in their relationship with their peers, school, and parents. We have presented our work at international conferences on violence in schools and the foremost trauma conference in the world, and we hope to continue to validate the efficacy of hip hop and beat making as educational, therapeutic, and cross-cultural intervention. We also hope to do work more with adults as well, including homeless individuals, veterans, and other populations.

Shaping youth development

Do you have any success stories or other important information that you wanted to share about your program?

Rovion: One of our recent 4th-grade students was just the type of student Kinetic Vibez loves to work with. When we began the program at her school, she was unmotivated, unresponsive, and disrupting. Throughout the eight-week program of working on making music and learning the fundamentals of yoga, we noticed a tangible difference each week. By the end, she was not only better engaged with what we were sharing, but she also spoke to us about how she has been applying these principles to her everyday life while at home and school! It’s the type of stories we aim to achieve – where the children learn ways to express themselves, and then apply them in times of high stress or difficulty.

Phi: Our top students have gone on to join our leadership program, bbLeaders, and those students have gone on to attend prestigious music programs and colleges, start their own DJ and beat making businesses, be placed in music production gigs, and serve their local communities.

Matthew: I think one abstract success is that we have former students who are 23 years old — five years removed from high school — who are still a vital part of the program. We still stay in touch, they’re invested in our current students, we help and consult them whenever they need it, and they feel like they’re a part of something special. That means we’re doing something right and are accomplishing the purpose Upbeat Academy was founded on: providing modern music education and giving young people a space to create and feel empowered. We have two Upbeat graduates who are now paid instructors, so the torch is being passed.

The future of music production education

As more and more educators and organizations look for ways to engage with students, the online education space has become a new medium for music education. From Zoom lessons to Twitch streams and even pre-recorded course videos, there are tons of resources provided by organizations and educators to those who are interested in music production. There are also many online tools such as Splice’s Create mode, Genius Home Studio, and Soundtrap that allow anyone to make music, even if they don’t have access to a lot of equipment.

I recently created a free online course in collaboration with Carnegie Hall and the Department of Education that’s perfect for middle school students and anyone looking for an introduction to music production. I believe a common goal among all of the organizations here and myself is to provide music production education resources that are easily accessible, low cost / free, and engaging. You never know when you can provide the spark that creates the next super producer or simply gives a young person the tools to help them creatively shape their futures.

March 5, 2021

Charles Burchell Charles “BLVK Samurai” Burchell is a music producer, rapper, multi-instrumentalist, and educator from New Orleans, Louisiana.